Rising Above Decline

Today, I want to think about dying and about not dying.  It’s pretty simple in a way, but I have quite a few posts I would like to write about getting old and about people who have written persuasively about what is involved—B. F. Skinner (left) and Erik Erikson (right) are the ones I will be following—and I find myself blocked because I have not said the few simple things that need to be said first.

Let’s start with “self.”  In my line of work, a self is a social construction: I have a work self and a running self and a punning self and so on.  And when I say “my self,” that is what people ordinarily refer to.[1]  But when I say “myself,” I mean me.  I mean all of me and my close identification with myself as someone who has a past and who has done some things and who is so substantial that I (it) is legally liable.  Since a self is socially required, “myself” is socially liable as well, of course.

Myself includes my body.  My self does not.  From the standpoint of my self, my body is “it.”  I am still fully engaged in this conversation but “it” is exhausted and will go to sleep no matter what I want it to do.[2]

OK, that was the hard part.  “It,” i.e., my body, is in a state of extended and predictable decline.  Nothing works as well as it used to and things are going to keep on declining.  Mostly, I’m fine with that.  But I don’t think “I” need to follow along too closely.  The analog of bodily death, it seems to me, is personal despair.  I got that from Erikson and eventually, I’d like to write a little more about how I understand him and how I feel about it.  I do need to die—or, to say it another way, “it” needs to—but I don’t need to despair.

The best summary of this I have ever seen was the title of an article about the kinds of economic uses schools could be put to when there were no children to put in them.  The population of the district was declining and the business manager was looking for a way to turn a profit on the empty buildings.  The article was called “Rising Above Decline.”  So I think “it” will decline, but I think “I” can rise above it.[3]  There is a good reason to die, but there is not a good reason to despair.

My body has a predictable arc of decline.  About 60% of adult males, age 50, can do this; 40% at age 60; 20% at age 80, and so on.  That’s a social assessment of who can do what.  I have my own assessment as well and any number of metrics could be called into play here.  I think I’ll use running times.  I always wanted to run a 10K under 41 minutes.  Never did.  I got to 41:12 once and to 41:15 twice.  After a while, I started just being sure that whatever the course was, I was in under 45 minutes.  Then under an hour.  My Wildwood trail times for a mile have gone from 9:15/mile to 10 minutes.  My standard time these days is about 13 minutes, although that includes some walking, and I do sometimes run the last mile or so under 12 minutes.  Each.

I am illustrating “decline.”  I’m perfectly contented with these times if they are all I am capable of.  I keep pushing on the edges to see if bad things happen when I push.  When they don’t, I push a little harder; when they do, I count myself satisfied.  Sometimes more than satisfied, although I wouldn’t want to have to justify how good I feel when I have done what I am capable of.  I call it “leaving it all on the trail,” a version of the “leave it all on the floor” of my early basketball days.  When I have pushed my body to do what it is capable of that day, I am really tired and entirely content at the end of the day.  If it took me an hour and twenty minutes to run the six mile course and that’s the best I could do that day, I’m proud of myself.  If I think I really could have run it in an hour and fifteen minutes and just didn’t have the guts to do it, I am disappointed in myself.

I win nearly all the time because I keep adjusting the goals down so that I have a decent chance at achieving them.  I like winning, but I like to set the goals where they demand my best performance to reach them, so being disappointed today is the price I pay for really believing in my satisfaction the next time.

If this works out right, the next post in this series will imagine the “stages of life” (Erikson) as a tennis tournament, like Wimbledon, in which each victory gives you the opportunity to play someone better than the guy you just beat, but which also gives you additional tools for the next match.  Now that I think of it, it is even more like the New Wilmington (Pennsylvania) summer tennis tournaments, where each player brought a new can of balls to the match and the winner got to keep the unopened can.

[1] English has come to use person as the crucial word.  There is an irony there because person once referred to the theater masks used in Greek drama, so that dramatis personae didn’t mean so much “cast of characters,” i.e., the actors and actresses, as it meant the range of masks to be used.  The derivation per, “through” +, “to sound,” shows the dramatic origins of the term and also why an actor would “sound through” whatever mask he was wearing.

[2] None of this is meant to imply that I believe the body and the other part (self, soul, essence) are independent entities.  The body is the host to the neurons, the interaction of which generates the possibility of selfhood.  I know this is controversial in some settings, but since I believe the self requires a supporting cast of connected neurons, I also believe that when the neurons go, I go.  I am, in this sense, a psychosomatic unity and neither element works alone.  Surprisingly, The Matrix is very good about this.  As is The Bible, in a very different way.

[3] I will still think that is true when I get to the question of pervasive dementia, but that isn’t the focus of today’s piece.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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